I was recently asked to put together a blog on the pros and cons of treadmill running. This is a topic that receives much debate on the various track message boards and also in the scientific community. Proponents of treadmills, such as Athletic Republic (formerly Frappier Acceleration) believe it provides a safe means of training athletes for speed and can provide benefits that overground running cannot. Among the many arguments against treadmills are that they can negatively alter sprint mechanics, muscle activation patterns, and the training is non-specific to overground running. Let’s take a look at these arguments analytically.
To really address the pros and cons of treadmill sprinting four critical questions need to be answered:
1. Are there differences in the mechanics of treadmill and overground sprinting?
2. Are improvements in speed on a treadmill transferrable to improvements in speed in overground running?
3. Does running on a treadmill screw up overground mechanics?
4. Are there any scenarios when you would want or need to use a treadmill?
I’ll look at each of these individually over the next couple days. For now, let’s take a look at the first question:
Are there differences in the mechanics of treadmill and overground sprinting?
Yes. Unquestionably. There are numerous studies that have indicated as much. See the following studies for starters. Note that one of the studies is on walking but is still somewhat relevant.
McKenna, M. and Riches, P.E. (2007). A comparison of sprinting kinematics on two types of treadmill and over-ground. Scandanavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports (in press).
“Sprinting on the conventional treadmill elicited a longer ground contact time, a longer braking phase, a more extended knee at foot strike and a faster extending hip than the torque treadmill and over-ground (all P< 0.05). The torque treadmill obtained an equivalent sprinting technique to the over-ground condition, with the exception of a less extended hip at toe-off, suggesting that it is more appropriate for laboratory sprinting analyses and training than the conventional treadmill.”
Kivi, D.M., Maraj, B.K., and Gervais, P. (2002). A kinematic analysis of high-speed treadmill sprinting over a range of velocities. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise; 34(4):662-666.
“The results indicated that at slower velocities, there were differences in the stride characteristics and lower-extremity kinematics while sprinting on a treadmill. As the velocity approached near maximum mechanical breakdown was seen, suggesting that velocities greater than 90% should be used selectively during treadmill training.”
Frishberg, B.A. (1983). An analysis of overground and treadmill sprinting. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise; 15(6): 478-485.
“Data suggest that the moving treadmill belt reduces the energy requirements of the runner by bringing the supporting leg back under the body during the support phase of running. ”
White, S.C., Yack, H.J., Tucker, C.A., and Lin, H. (1998). Comparison of vertical ground reaction forces during overground and treadmill walking. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, (30) 10, 1537-1542
“Although the patterns of the vertical reaction forces for the two forms of locomotion were nearly identical, small but significant differences in selected force magnitudes were evident. The interpretation of locomotion data collected on a treadmill should consider that forces during mid- and late-stance may be different than if the subject walked overground. ”
Elliot, B.C., Blanksby, B.A. (1976). A cinematographic analysis of overground and treadmill running by males and females. Medicine and Science in Sports, 8(2): 84-87.
“No significant differences were recorded in stride length, stride rate, support time or non-support time for males or females when jogging at velocities of between 3.33 and 4.78 m/s (x = 3.70) or 3.45 and 4.80 m/s (x=3.97) respectively. However, it was demonstrated that at velocities of 4.82 – 6.2 m/s for males (x – 5.41) and 4.85 – 5.76 m/s for females (x = 5.29) significant differences did occur between overground and treadmill running. For both males and females stride length decreased, stride rate increased, and the period of non-support was also significantly less when running on a treadmill as compared to running overground. ”
Dillman, R.C., Lagasse, C.J., and Bickett, P. (1972). Biomechanics of overground versus treadmill running, Medicine and Science in Sports, 4(4): 233-240
“Using trained track and field athletes, stride lengths were absolutely identical on treadmill and firm ground; but when velocity rose to 6.4m/sec (62.5 seconds per 400m), treadmill stride length was about 5% longer than overground strides. … ‘support time’ (the length in milliseconds of the stance phase of the gait cycle) increased significantly on the treadmill for all speeds during uphill and downhill running – and at the very highest speed during level running. ”
The summary of this research says that treadmills (especially conventionally motorized ones rather than high-speed treadmills) do alter kinematics and kinetics slightly when compared to overground running and this difference appears to be magnified at higher velocities.